In 2009, in my second semester at Pomona, I taught a senior seminar with the (I hoped) provocative title, “Inventing the Great Books.” Inventing: for though the label is meant to suggest timelessness, the “Great Books,” as a kind of intellectual and cultural branding exercise, has a specific history. We can even say with some certainty that the Great Books—in the sense we understand that phrase today—was invented in 1898, when Fredrick W. Farrar, Dean of Canterbury and author of the extremely popular Life of Christ (1874), published a book bearing that title. He devotes individual chapters to five authors, and although all wrote from securely within the Christian tradition—John Bunyan, Shakespeare, Dante, John Milton, and Thomas à Kempis—all but the author of The Imitation of Christ created works of the imagination, rather than sacred or devotional writing. In its slippage from sacred to profane letters, or the ease with which he blurs the boundaries between the two, Farrar’s study amounts to the construction of an embryonic secular canon of English literature. In his table of contents one can just make out the shadowy outline of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Farrar never uses the word canon, the way we so comfortably do today, to refer to his selection of literary texts. He doesn’t precisely because he was a man of the church: and in 1898, canon referred to “the collection or list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired” (OED). According to the Oxford English Dictionary the transferred sense, applied now to literary texts, doesn’t appear until the mid-twentieth century. When we refer to Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice as “canonical,” then, we’re making a claim for the status of the writer of the text that was, just a century ago, reserved for sacred, inspired writings.
The timing of Farrar’s book is no coincidence: indeed, it’s not hard to intuit something slightly nervous behind the gesture. Given the seemingly incompatible claims of Bible literalists on the one side, and geologists like Charles Lyell (as well as the more famous findings of naturalist Charles Darwin) on the other, the second half of the nineteenth century was a period of profound religious turmoil.
The cultural authority of the Bible suffered greatly as a result. In hindsight, of course, it’s possible to argue that the faithful were perhaps putting the Bible to uses for which it wasn’t designed—that it was never intended, as Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830) was, as a scientific treatise. The faith statements of many contemporary protestant denominations affirm the infallibility of scripture by describing the Bible as “without error in all that it affirms,” or words to that effect; if one believes that the Bible makes no affirmation about the age of the earth, then, or the precise manner of its creation, this leaves room for the believer to accept the findings of modern science without having to reject the foundation of her faith.
Though it’s a long and somewhat complex story, suffice it to say here that the nineteenth century Christian did not have this option (just as many contemporary young-earth creationists believe that they do not). In their view, either the Bible or science is correct when it comes to explaining our place in the universe; those committed to the Biblical account were forced to reject scientific research while those persuaded by scientific discovery were forced, in large numbers, into religious doubt. If the urgency of that doubt seems remote, do yourself a favor and read Tennyson’s long poem In Memoriam, in which the poet endeavors to understand, over a period of 17 years, how a loving God could allow the death of a young college friend. In section 55 of that poem, during his dark night of the soul, Tennyson writes:
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
Culture abhors doubt just as nature does a vacuum: with the authority of the Bible under fire, thinkers and public intellectuals (Christians among them) became concerned that, in the influential formulation of Matthew Arnold, the only thing that could hold back Anarchy was Culture. In a largely inchoate (and incoherent) cultural project, the Great Books started to come together, comprising something like a new secular scripture. Listen to how Farrar—again, one of the highest officials of the Church of England of his day—puts in Great Books:
A man who lives in this high society [that is, among the Great Books] will walk through the world with the open eyes of wonder and the receptive mind of intelligence. He will believe in God; he will believe in Man; he will believe in Conscience; he will believe in Duty; and while he believes in these no darkness without can ever wholly quench that light within, which is a reflection of the light of God Himself in the human soul. The best books of man will throw more and more widely open before him the Books of God, which are best interpreted by that chosen literature of the Chosen People, which more than all other literature of the world is able to make us wise unto salvation. (25-26)
Now I’d be the last to deny that great art of all kinds can sensitize us to the working of God in the world— that, to quote the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” and art provides an important lens onto that world. And not just God’s grandeur but the other side of the coin, the poverty of a world without God. Though hardly Christian rock, nothing has taught me more about the pain and loneliness and futility of a life cut off from God than the music of Nirvana. But I do worry that, more than a century after our surreptitious substitution of the Great Books for the Good Book, Christian intellectuals sometimes aren’t making the distinctions that we should: that we’re in danger of forgetting that for Farrar, the Great Books properly aren’t a substitute for, but merely an adjunct to, holy scripture.
Let me get to the point, and get out. I’m a professor of British literature: I’m a big reader and a great lover of literature, British and otherwise. I’m the co-general editor of the canon-making/ breaking Longman Anthology of British Literature. I do believe that my reading enriches my life; as a Christian intellectual I read with a Christian worldview, as Francis Schaeffer argued we must. I think I’ve learned as much about the fallen nature of humankind from two decades of reading and teaching Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1898, like Great Books) as I have from even more years of Bible study.
But in a lifetime as a reader, I’ve learned that literary texts—secular literature—can only, at best, show me how not to live. Parading negative examples before the reader is itself a biblical strategy, of course; both the Old and New Testaments are full of cautionary tales. The family history of King David wouldn’t be a bad place to start; the Book of Ecclesiastes is a vivid, and remorseless, picture of a life without God. But in scripture, we’re given more than just this: in scripture we find precepts, and both human and divine examples of what it means to lead a successful life. Secular authors often try to preach these morals; to my ear, they always fall somewhat flat. Take for instance the conclusion of Douglas Coupland’s generation-defining novel Generation X (1991), which suggests that when facing the prospect of “life without God” (the title of his 1994 story collection), the only things that give meaning are friends and physical pain. In Nine Inch Nail’s harrowing song “Hurt,” so memorably revisited by Johnny Cash at the very end of his life, there’s only pain: “I hurt myself today, / To see if I still feel. / I focus on the pain. / The only thing that’s real.”
When we look to the Great Books to console us, to teach us how to live, we’re bound to be disappointed. To their credit, authors like Shakespeare and Robert Browning knew the words of life—and knew that their words were not those: they knew their poetry to be a powerful complement to the truth of scripture, but no substitute for it. Imaginative literature can provide powerful insights into the various ways we sin and fall short of the glory of God; but it tells us nothing very helpful, finally, about how to live up to the glory of our high calling.
In the “culture wars,” we Christians often—and too often, unreflectively—embrace a traditional, “Great Books” position, believing that in so doing we ward off the dangers of relativism, postmodernism, you name it. We think of “traditional” literature as somehow being more nearly sacred than more contemporary, “godless” work: it’s a position that’s difficult to maintain in face of the facts. The Great Books aren’t sacred—or no more sacred, at least, than any other work of the human imagination. Anyone who has read Shakespeare, or Melville, or Dickinson carefully would know better. Anyone who has read Shakespeare, that is—just as we need to read the latest Tom Clancy thriller—with a worldview grounded in the truth of scripture.